28 MARCH 1998, Page 11


Noemie .Emery says that the President

is not the only Clinton to have been diminished by scandal

Washington, DC WHATEVER becomes of the Clinton presidency — survival, removal, or merely loud snickers — it is already certain that Hillary Clinton the icon is dead. Instead of praising her brains, people now wonder at how she has chosen to use them. Instead of looking up to her co-equal, power- shared marriage, people are calling it `sick'. 'Their repugnant relationship,' writes the New York Times columnist Mau- reen Dowd, no right-winger. Joe Klein, the New Democrat, calls it 'stupefyingly weird'. 'Creepy,' says Hanna Rosin, in the centre-left New Republic. First Lady turned First Enabler, Hillary is now the First Victim. 'She has made the kind of Faustian bargain that mere mortals . . . can't fathom,' says Barbara Lippert in the left-leaning New York magazine. The hardline feminist Barbara Ehrenreich calls her 'disturbingly complicit' in her hus- band's excesses. It seems that defending your man once may seem heroic, the eighth time you look like a sap. This is all a far cry from those high days some years ago when she was not just a `great mind' and a 'towering figure' (these last effusions courtesy of another feminist, Ms Anna Quindlen) but a gender-avenger of mighty proportions. As she scraps fiercely for her husband's survival in office, she has already lost what she was really after: a place in the history books as a trail-blazing woman.

Like Richard Nixon, her one-time Watergate quarry, Hillary Clinton is fated to survive as a psychological curiosity, her motivation endlessly dissected. The main point of debate is the degree of denial: how much has she really blocked out? All agree she survives on the technique of dis- placement: fury that would naturally flow to her wandering husband is diverted to third parties — his accusers, other women, the press. Then feminist Hillary goes on the war path, denouncing her sisters as sluts. 'I could crucify her,' she said in 1992 of Gennifer Flowers. It is widely believed that she is the driving force behind White House vilifications of the other women.

The strangest part of the story may be that she enjoys the experience. 'Why . . . does Hillary Clinton always look so radiant in the midst of a sex scandal?' Joe Klein asks, and answers, 'She looks good . . . she is invigorated. Her husband needs her des- perately; she is the essential element in his defence.' These crises are the Clintons' way of getting closer. 'In a very weird way . . these alleged transgressions somehow glue them together,' says Gloria Borger in US News & World Report.

There is a ritual pattern to these recur- ring crises. Hillary shouts at Bill in private, but when he finally grovels, the situation changes. They unite against common opponents, with Hillary taking most of the load. This makes sense from two different angles. If she does love him, it brings them closer. She is the one woman he needs. And if all she wants is power, it is still more compelling. Not since Alma Powell refused to let her husband be president has one woman so controlled American national destiny. One cross word in public, and it's President Gore.

David Marannis, the Washington Post reporter, sees this as a pattern going back to the first days in Arkansas. He suggests they are bonded together, truly one single unbreakable unit, cemented by all their worst traits: self-absorption, self-righteous- ness, utter ruthlessness in pursuing their interests, a talent for law-breaking just a step short of prison, and an absolute and utter absence of shame. They are two sides of a single dysfunctional character, unable to distinguish, much less divorce, them- selves.

This bonding is what causes feminists to feel betrayed. She was their golden girl, a Sylvia Plath with stability, who could have been president in her own right. But could she? As long ago as law school, the Clin- tons told friends that they were able to scale heights together that would be impossible separately. Affable Bill had a rich seam of political talent, but was lack- ing in focus and discipline; Hillary had both. She wanted big-time, political power; Bill, she was sure, could supply it.

Bill has been true to his part of their bargain, keeping the most important of his marriage vows. He has given her power never held by an American woman. Who else would have ever let her be co-presi- dent; travel the world making speeches; choose half the cabinet; run health care into the ground; make her regal progres- sions through the inner cities, where she gives out her semi-royal little waves? Fem- inist twaddle about independence is non- 'I've decided to leave my body to art.'

sense beside this shattering pay-off. But did she ever dream the price would be so high?

Since she first struck her devilish bar- gain in Arkansas, Hillary Clinton has been playing for enormous stakes: not merely for their joint role as First Couple, but for her claim on history. These expectations have now been shattered. Eleanor Roo- sevelt came to the White House as an experienced political figure, and used her role to raise issues, ruthlessly lobbying her husband. But she was never invited to share his executive power, and she would not even have asked. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, tried to assume it as a right of marriage, claimed in exchange for services rendered to the President. After the health care debacle, she retreated to a role as behind-the-scenes power. Her real goal, however, was to become a model for women everywhere. Today, the polls show that while her stock is sinking among professional women (who can imagine what it would be like to work for a man like her husband), it is rising fast among the homemakers she once denigrat- ed, but who see in her now a figure with whom they can sympathise, a martyred and dependent wife.

Feminists had always defended her as a woman who made other women resentful, as she made them regret their own choices. Now anyone's choices seem better than hers. She will go down in history as one half of a strange and unpleasant bargain, as a woman who saved (perhaps temporarily) one of the most corrupt administrations in American history, and as an extreme exam- ple of the cheated-on, compliant wife. No girls will want to be Hillary Clinton. No future first ladies will want to model them- selves on her. Hillary once told a friend back in Arkansas that she frequently won- dered what history would have to say of her marriage. She doesn't have to wonder any more.

The author is a Washington journalist who has published biographies of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.